AD – Press ticket provided in exchange for a review
Before I begin, I’ll admit outright that this wasn’t my very first theatre trip post-lockdown. I’ve dipped my toe into seeing a few productions since restrictions started easing.
In September 2020 I attended an outdoor musical performance, as well as a socially distanced screening of 42nd Street at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre. I even attended my first live, in-person performances at MAST Mayflower Studios this spring (namely Rambert 2 and War of the Worlds, both of which were fantastic), back when seats were still cordoned off and mask-wearing was compulsory.
Now, however, it’s a whole different ball game. Things have moved on since then. Live theatre is back with no restrictions; there’s no separated seating, masks are a personal choice, and there’s no need to check yourself in for the sake of track and trace.
I was recently invited along to see Willy Russell’s legendary Blood Brothers at the Mayflower Theatre, as part of its UK tour, and as thrilled as I was to be back in the theatre for a (relatively) normal experience, I couldn’t ignore the anxieties that were already drumming away steadily on my insides as soon as I RSVP’d.
As with everything I’ve been doing since all restrictions were lifted in July, this was going to test me. It would ask me to pretty much unlearn all the behaviours I’d become used to over the last 18 months: I would be in an indoor space with the largest number of people I’d been around for well over a year, with no boundaries, no distancing, and minimal masks.
I’ve missed theatre, dearly. I’ve missed immersing myself in Southampton’s cultural community physically, and not just online. Over the last few months, I’ve also had my moments of self-imposed isolation, restricting my social life to an unhealthy amount in a bid to feel like I was keeping myself and others safe – which, ironically, impacted my mental health more than pushing myself to go out more might have done.
So, while I felt somewhat fearful, I also knew it was important for me to say yes, and head back into the Mayflower. Plus, it was Blood Brothers – a show people seem shocked to hear I’ve never seen myself, as a somewhat avid theatregoer.
And so, I found myself making my way back down to Mayflower on a mild Saturday date night in September, feeling all sorts of feelings, and anticipating a brilliant night of theatre.
It was everything I remembered it being. The swiftly moving queues outside, the fumbling for tickets, the hunt for the right row and the “sorry, excuse me, sorry, excuse me”s of the unintentionally intimate shuffle along the row to the right seat. The beautiful maroon auditorium and the high ceiling painted to be gazed at. The anticipation of the lights finally dimming, the music swelling, and the feeling of settling in for a couple of hours of losing oneself in a story of the ages played out on stage.
Except, it still felt….strange.
I sat, next to a stranger, shoulder to shoulder; my glasses fogged sporadically with my mask-warmed breath; my ears pricked at every cough; my sanitised hands stayed tightly grasped together in my lap.
I will admit, there was a moment, before the performance began, when I felt slightly overwhelmed.
Then the performance began, and to my relief, I really did forget where I was as I was transported to a whole other place, in a whole other time.
Blood Brothers itself was wonderful. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting – the show had somehow gained legendary status in my mind with all the stories and anecdotes from friends and family over the years. It had been painted to me as a dramatic and moving tale of bonds formed across boundaries, but (somehow) I didn’t realise it was a musical!
The acting was excellent – so full of both comedy and feeling that you found yourself laughing one minute and holding your heart in your hands the next. Any other show might risk taking their audiences on an erratic rollercoaster of emotions with so many ups and downs, but Blood Brothers was smooth and soulful, with a superb cast and excellent staging.
I can absolutely see why it’s so popular, and so loved; it’s easy to follow, with characters who feel like family and music that sweeps you up while guiding you through the plot. Moreover, it’s a powerful exploration of class; of the divides it creates, and the loss and sacrifices it incites. It’s an everyman musical; no fuss, no nonsense, just spectacular storytelling with ordinary lives and tragedies – and well deserving of the standing ovation it received!
As Eddie Johnstone might say, it was “smashing”!
So, what about my first ‘new normal’ theatre experience?
It was fantastic to be back in the stalls once more, welcomed by friendly staff, and in a familiar and special place. Sure, I was worried, anxious, and a little overwhelmed – but this was also exactly how I knew I’d feel. These discomforts and concerns were not things the Mayflower, or any theatre, could alleviate. They did all they could to make us feel comfortable, safe, and welcomed back into their building!
It may take me a little time to get used to life without any restrictions again, but it feels great to be back experiencing the things I love again, in the places I love, in person.
If you’re a little more confident and relaxed than me, and you can access events and get out there safely, then you will no doubt love returning to theatre and live events (if you haven’t already!). It’s thrilling, and something I know we won’t take for granted.
But if, like me, you’re still a little anxious…when you feel ready, if you are able to, and you feel you can coax yourself out of your comfort zone a little, you may find that being back at the theatre isn’t as scary as it might seem. Just do what makes you feel safe, and make sure you let yourself enjoy the occasion as much as possible. After all, it’s so good to be back in the theatre after all these months!
I’m looking forward to many more shows back in Mayflower Theatre – and beyond.